So you want to be a journalist?

by James Tweedie

So you wanna be a journo, and why not? Well, here are a few good reasons to let the dream die.

The pay is rotten

For a white-collar job with its own university degree course, journalism pays peanuts. A reporter for one of the big national newspapers or TV stations will get about £25,000 a year, on which you might have to survive in London where most of them are based.

Sure, Boris Johnson used to get £275,000 a year for writing a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph. But you and I aren’t BoJo. You could earn twice as much as a reporter in a blue-collar trade like plumbing, and keep more sociable hours.

The value of a journalism degree is questionable. The whole set-up of university is the antithesis of working for a news outlet. Your tutor will give you a week or two to write a 5,000-word essay full of polysyllabic words you probably don’t really understand, and in your final year you’ll spend nine months writing a dissertation like a small book. How does that prepare you for churning out five or ten stories of between 50 and 500 words in one eight-hour shift?

Getting a job as a junior reporter at your local newspaper is probably a much better bet than studying. They’ll pay you peanuts, so you might have to live with your parents until you can get a senior job. But you’ll end up with all the practical skills and experience instead of a £30K student debt.

The hours are terrible

The news doesn’t eat or sleep, and neither do journalists. In the internet age, most newsrooms run 24/7. You’ll be expected to work weekends and night shifts on a rotating rota with everyone else.

You might be sent round the country to report on events, staying overnight in hotels and B&Bs of highly variable comfort or else coming back late at night. Or you might be stood outside some venue in the cold and rain all night waiting for some VIP to come out and give you a soundbite.

It’s hard to find work

It’s frankly appalling how many talentless wankers harbour pretensions of being a journalist. I’m talking about people who just can’t write a news story. You’re going to have to compete with them for a small number of jobs. Just search LinkedIn for “aspiring journalist”, if you can bear the bland millennial horror.

The business is full of rich bastards’ idiot children slumming it. While you’re hung over in your grotty shared flat on Saturday morning, these day-trippers are sipping champers at mummy and daddy’s house in the countryside, laughing about how silly it is to have to work.

The media and publishing have a small and ever-decreasing workforce. Technological developments have wiped out whole grades of workers over the last few decades. Do you even know why the press was called the ‘hot metal’ business, or what a Linotype operator did?

Nowadays in print journalism reporters do the work that sub-editors used to do, while the subs do the work of the typesetters. In web journalism there aren’t any subs any more.

It’s really not as fun as you think

If you dream of being the the next Carl Bernstein or Bob Woodward, uncovering a scandal as great as Watergate, you’d better wake up. Even if you work for the national media, you’ll spend most of your time editing agency copy about grubby crime stories or captioning picture galleries of cute animals or ‘property porn’.

You’ll probably start off at a local paper, writing stories on the mayor opening a new library or ‘breaking’ traffic jam updates with a blurred mobile phone photo of a broken-down van. Or you might just end up working for a trade or hobby magazine like Chartered Accountant or The Ringing World.

My highpoint of working as international editor at the Morning Star was probably when I ‘broke’ the Bridge International Academies (BIA) story in the UK.

I didn’t do any legwork, I just got the report and press release from Education International, the teaching trade union federation who’d had one of their staff working undercover for BIA in Africa. I was the one who broke the story here because no other media outlet was interested in a story criticising Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar, until I gave it coverage.

If you think you’re going to be a crusader for some political agenda, forget it. Even the ‘alternative’ media have very tight editorial lines. You’d be very surprised to find out who’s untouchable in the leftwing press.

It’s a lot of stress for no thanks

The stereotype of the alcoholic journalist is sadly very true. Having to deliver sensational stories to series of tight deadlines throughout the day will do that to you.

I’ve often left the newsroom at the end of a shift drained but with my head still buzzing, ears burning and teeth grinding. The easiest thing to do is head to the nearest pub with your workmates and spill out some bile over a few drinks.

It catches up with you in the end. I’ve seen colleagues throw sickies every week to lighten the load, burst into tears or just crack up and quit.

Everyone else in the game is mad, bad or dangerous to work with

All that stress can make people hard to work with too. Colleagues with snap at you and your editors will blame you when things go wrong. Shouted arguments are common in the newsroom.

Office politics can be perilous. If you get on the wrong side of the boss’s favourites, you can end up being ostracised or victimised. I’ve seen it.

You need a thick skin and eyes in the back of your head in this business.

You’ll end up praying for war

Sex sells, and if it bleeds it leads. The media depend on titillation and morbidity to attract readers and viewers.

You might go into the profession with a head full of high ideals and pure ethics, but after the frustration and boredom a couple of slow news days you’ll find your wishing for a nice juicy celebrity kiss-and-tell or a good bloody war with lots of civilian casualties and refugees. You’ll see.

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